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The Senses of Scripture

Thursday, January 31, 2013 6:50 AM Comments (20)

Periodically, folks ask about whether we are supposed to read the Bible literally.

The Church does require a literal interpretation of biblical texts.  But that does not mean what most Americans imagine it means.  It does not mean we have to believe, for instance, that the universe was made in six 24 hour days, or profess faith in talking snakes.  Rather, by the "literal sense", the Church means we must read the text looking for what the author intended to say, the *way* he intended to say it, and distinguish from that what is incidental to what he was saying.  That’s the literal interpretation.  And getting at it is trickier than we might suppose, since the inspired authors were not, in fact, 3000 years stupider than us, but were endowed with brains and a genetic complement identical to ours and an *extremely* subtle and sophisticated manner of communicating theological and spiritual truths and a complex symbol system that we often misunderstand.  That's why we need the Church.  Therefore, the Church also says we are not at all bound to read it *literalistically* as though it was always a newspaper account.  So, for instance, CCC 390 says:

The account of the fall in Genesis 3 uses figurative language, but affirms a primeval event, a deed that took place at the beginning of the history of man. Revelation gives us the certainty of faith that the whole of human history is marked by the original fault freely committed by our first parents. 

Note that: Genesis describes a real primeval event (the fall) but it uses figurative, not newspaper, language to do it.  Other times, of course, Scripture does uses something like newspaper language ("David hid from Saul in a cave.") in order to tell the story.  Common sense and the interpretive tradition of the Church help us discern what from what.

Likewise, the Church does not commit us to reading the account of Noah literalistically.  But at the same time, the Church remains open to the findings of the sciences which help to inform our understanding of what may constitute the historical basis of the story.  And, of course, what Jesus, the apostles, and the Fathers thought most important about the Old Testament were the various spiritual senses of interpretation (while always maintaining that the literal sense was the basis of all the other senses of Scripture).  For a quick rundown on on the senses of Scripture, see CCC 115-119:

115 According to an ancient tradition, one can distinguish between two senses of Scripture: the literal and the spiritual, the latter being subdivided into the allegorical, moral and anagogical senses. The profound concordance of the four senses guarantees all its richness to the living reading of Scripture in the Church.

116 The literal sense is the meaning conveyed by the words of Scripture and discovered by exegesis, following the rules of sound interpretation: “All other senses of Sacred Scripture are based on the literal.”83

117 The spiritual sense. Thanks to the unity of God’s plan, not only the text of Scripture but also the realities and events about which it speaks can be signs.

1. The allegorical sense. We can acquire a more profound understanding of events by recognizing their significance in Christ; thus the crossing of the Red Sea is a sign or type of Christ’s victory and also of Christian Baptism.84

2. The moral sense. The events reported in Scripture ought to lead us to act justly. As St. Paul says, they were written “for our instruction”.85

3. The anagogical sense (Greek: anagoge, “leading”). We can view realities and events in terms of their eternal significance, leading us toward our true homeland: thus the Church on earth is a sign of the heavenly Jerusalem.86

118 A medieval couplet summarizes the significance of the four senses:

The Letter speaks of deeds; Allegory to faith; The Moral how to act; Anagogy our destiny.87 119 “It is the task of exegetes to work, according to these rules, towards a better understanding and explanation of the meaning of Sacred Scripture in order that their research may help the Church to form a firmer judgment. For, of course, all that has been said about the manner of interpreting Scripture is ultimately subject to the judgement of the Church which exercises the divinely conferred commission and ministry of watching over and interpreting the Word of God.”88

But I would not believe in the Gospel, had not the authority of the Catholic Church already moved me.

For much more detail on the senses of Scripture, see my book Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did.

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About Mark Shea

Mark Shea
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Mark P. Shea is a popular Catholic writer and speaker. The author of numerous books, his most recent work is The Work of Mercy (Servant) and The Heart of Catholic Prayer (Our Sunday Visitor). Mark contributes numerous articles to many magazines, including his popular column “Connecting the Dots” for the National Catholic Register. Mark is known nationally for his one minute “Words of Encouragement” on Catholic radio. He also maintains the Catholic and Enjoying It blog. He lives in Washington state with his wife, Janet, and their four sons.